HealthGrowing up in a Dangerous World: How Children Learn What Is Safe

Growing up in a Dangerous World: How Children Learn What Is Safe

Like other mammals, children learn about danger and safety from things in their environment, such as objects, animals, or places. This helps them navigate their worlds and make decisions about what to approach and what to avoid. The process by which some things become associated with bad outcomes is called conditioning and can be observed in all animals and humans. Sometimes, when the environment is particularly dangerous, this process can save a life.

Marked by poverty and violence, the inner-city streets are often full of danger; many children growing up there witness gun shots, fighting, and drug-related activity. Playing outside the home and walking to school can present difficult challenges that have to be faced every day. Knowing the difference between safety and danger can be of critical importance. The Grady Trauma Project is working to understand how children grow in such harsh environments. A clinical research program of the psychiatry department in Emory University’s School of Medicine, this long-term study researches PTSD in individuals with chronic trauma exposure.

“At the age of 8 to 10 years old, children are becoming more independent and explore their environment more—this may represent a sensitive period for learning about the things to avoid.”

In a study that was recently published in the journal Social Neuroscience in April 20161, Van Rooij and colleagues used an experiment in which they tested conditioning in children (ages 8-10) and adolescents (ages 11-13) to see if they could learn to associate a danger signal with an uncomfortable blast of air, and a safety signal with the absence of the airblast. The children and adolescents came to the study from inner-city Atlanta, and the majority (over 80%) had been exposed to neighborhood violence. Their mothers came with them, and 62 mothers participated in a similar test next to their children; 42 mothers were involved in other parts of the study and were not near their children.

Having a mother nearby helped the younger children learn the difference between danger and safety. In fact, when the mothers were further away and unavailable, the children did not respond differently to the two signals. The adolescents were equally able to learn the task, regardless of where their mother was. This suggests that the impact of the mother’s proximity may be most critical to younger children.

How do mothers help?

How did the mothers have an effect on their children’s learning? The children could not see, hear, or touch their mothers, but they knew that their mothers were close. The mothers did not tell them the answers to the experiment, and did not instruct them in what was dangerous or safe; it was merely their proximity that helped the children. Maybe having a mother close when faced with danger helped younger children focus and pay attention to the stimuli in the experiment, and in turn, this increase in focus helped them learn what was safe and what was dangerous.

Interestingly, the level of violence the child had been exposed to before they were in the study did not change the results. It also didn’t matter if the mother was especially nurturing—even mothers who did not report a warm relationship with their children helped them by just being close and available. It is possible that in a dangerous and chaotic environment, having a mother nearby is preferable even if she is not an ideal parent. A recent review of parenting behavior in animals suggested that “any kind of mother in a storm” was beneficial2.

8-10 years of age may be the “sweet spot” for help

We don’t yet know what these findings mean for children in the long run—will their ability to learn the difference between danger and safety serve a greater purpose in their development? Will it make them resilient to the future traumatic events that may happen, so that they remain healthy? At the age of 8 to 10 years old, children are becoming more independent and explore their environment more—this may represent a sensitive period for learning about the things to avoid. Brain development also goes through big changes at this age, and the control regions in the brain start to better control the emotion and fear centers3. Anxiety in children can slow down this developmental trajectory, so that older children do not show normal conditioning.4

We know that living through horrific events will make them vulnerable to depression, PTSD, and drug abuse as adults. We also know that adults with PTSD have more reactive fear centers in the brain5, and have difficulty responding appropriately to safety signals6. Given these risks, what are some of the factors that will protect these at-risk children from having PTSD as adults? From this early study, it would seem that having the safety net of a parental figure, even if they do not provide direct protection, may enable children to develop resiliency so they can better cope in a dangerous world.


1. Van Rooij SJ,Cross D,Stevens JS,Vance LA,Kim YJ,Bradley B,Tottenham N, Jovanovic T. (2016). Maternal buffering of fear-potentiated startle in children and adolescents with trauma exposure. Social Neuroscience, Epub.

2. Sapolsky R. (2009). Any kind of mother in a storm. Nat Neurosci, 12(11), 1355-1356.

3. Gee DG, Humphreys KL, Flannery J, Goff B, Telzer EH, Shapiro M, Hare TA, Bookheimer SY, Tottenham N. (2013) A developmental shift from positive to negative connectivity in human amygdala–prefrontal circuitry. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33 (10):4584-4593.

4. Jovanovic T, Nylocks KM, Gamwell KL, Smith A, Davis TA, Norrholm SD, Bradley B. (2014) Development of fear acquisition and extinction in children: Effects of age and anxiety. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 113:135-142.

5. Rauch SL, Whalen PJ, Shin LM, McInerney SC, Macklin ML, Lasko NB, Orr SP, Pitman RK. (2000) Exaggerated amygdala response to masked facial stimuli in posttraumatic stress disorder: a functional MRI study. Biological Psychiatry 47 (9):769-776.

6. Jovanovic T, Norrholm SD (2011) Neural mechanisms of impaired fear inhibition in posttraumatic stress disorder. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 5.

Associate Professor at Emory University

Tanja Jovanovic, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at Emory University School of Medicine, specializing in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. With expertise in psychophysiological research with traumatized populations, she focuses on veterans with PTSD. As the director of the Neurophysiology Laboratory of the Grady Trauma Project, she leads NIH-funded research on cortisol suppression effects on fear-potentiated startle in PTSD. Her work involves psychophysiological and neuroimaging methods, investigating traumatic experiences, neurophysiology, neuroendocrinology, and genetics in mental disorders among high-risk populations.


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